2 September, 2003
Childhood Obesity Symposium
Thank you very much for inviting me to today’s Symposium to discuss the Government’s approach to dealing with New Zealand’s childhood obesity epidemic.
I am sure many of you found recent comments in the UK Chief Medical Officer’s annual report as chilling as I did.
He said the reality of the obesity epidemic would mean many parents would outlive their children.
We do not want that to happen here. We are facing a child obesity epidemic in New Zealand, but we can still do something about it.
That is why it is so important to be part of a positive symposium like this that aims to “be part of the solution”, to stop laying blame, and to plan the way forward.
I think it is great to get in on the ground floor, to plan for the future, not the let the future hit is.
I want to thank Professor Ian Watson, the Principal of Massey University’s Albany Campus, the Symposium Coordinator Rose Carr, and all the other leading health, food, industry and media experts who have willingly become involved in the spirit of this Symposium.
We will know a lot more detail about the extent of childhood obesity in New Zealand when the Children’s Nutrition Survey is published late this year.
This will be our first national survey of children, and includes information from over 3200 children aged between 5 and 14, randomly selected from schools around New Zealand.
But, before the survey is even completed, we already know a number of relevant facts.
The first of these is that obese children are more likely to become obese adults, thus increasing the risk of associated diseases, especially type 2 diabetes, of which New Zealand has an epidemic, heart disease, hypertension, some forms of cancer, and joint and skeletal problems.
We also know that one in seven New Zealand children suffer from obesity, and that this percentage is increasing.
The ‘Nutrition and the Burden of Disease’ report, which I launched last month, provides disturbing evidence about the destructive impact of poor nutrition.
The report revealed that two out of five deaths in New Zealand, or 11,000 deaths a year, are attributable to nutrition-related factors, with 8,000 to 9,000 related to diet and 2,000 to 3,000 related to physical inactivity.
The report showed the potential benefits to the health of New Zealanders from even modest improvements in our diet are considerable. Such modest improvements in diet could achieve health gains very quickly, preventing hundreds of deaths annually within just a few years.
Acknowledging the facts is one thing, but doing something about it is another.
We cannot change everyone’s attitudes to nutrition overnight, or over a week, a month or a year, but that is no excuse for not trying to create real awareness among New Zealanders.
I am a strong believer in education and encouragement as the best approach, although I know there are others who have a personal belief in a more regulatory approach.
Education and encouragement are certainly the guiding principals behind the ‘Healthy Eating: Healthy Action’ strategy I launched in March at Saint Anne’s school in Wellington. The strategy was developed over two years after extensive consultation, no doubt with many of you here today.
Healthy Eating: Healthy Action focuses on changing the environment of people to help them make healthy choices, and children and their families are a priority area within the strategy.
The strategy doesn't just focus on changing personal behaviors. It signals the need for major changes to reduce various social, cultural, economic and physical environmental barriers to eating well, being physically active and achieving a healthy weight.
Everyone needs to be involved in the solutions. The strategy calls on a range of sectors, such as transport, local government, health, education, and food, fitness and weight-loss industries to work together. That is why it is good to see so many sectors represented at this symposium today.
St Anne’s School and Beachhaven Primary School are both Health Promoting Schools, and offer a good example of the way various elements and agencies can be linked.
St Anne’s, for example, promotes the Walking School Bus, holds daily aerobic sessions, has a water-only and healthy lunch order policy, and links home and school together by inviting parents to the school to discuss issues like nutrition.
It is my hope that more and more schools will follow the example St Anne’s and Beachhaven provide.
The next step in terms of the Healthy Eating: Healthy Action strategy is to develop an action plan to accompany it, and this is happening now. This plan will focus on tackling health inequalities, and will encourage health providers to work with the food and fitness industries, local government and schools to provide coordinated nutrition and physical activity services.
The direct costs of obesity to the health sector were estimated in 2000/01 at $247.1million annually, or 2.5 percent of health spending that year.
But, of more importance are the costs of obesity to individuals, to families and to New Zealand as a whole.
Prevention is always better than cure, and prevention is easier too, provided you are committed to it. Creating environments for our children that encourage good nutrition and increased physical activity is a great start.
New Zealand’s approach to improving child health is taking place within an overall strategic framework, through both the New Zealand Health Strategy and the Primary Health Care Strategy as well as Healthy Eating: Healthy Action.
The basis of our primary health care approach is to provide low cost and accessible primary health care to all New Zealanders over the next eight to ten years through the development of Primary Health Organisations.
As you know, we are first of all targeting those living in low socio-economic, high health-need regions, and children and young people. I am delighted PHOs are already reaching more than twice as many people as we expected them to after one year of operation.
As we all look today to find a way forward to tackle child obesity in New Zealand, I urge you all to remember that if we really want to create a healthier environment for our young people, we need to listen to them and understand their needs.
Societal changes over the last 20 years have helped to create the current obesity epidemic.
While we cannot turn back the clock, we can draw on our experiences of when we were children and explore new innovative ways to make a difference, and we can listen to today’s young people about their experiences as well.
I wish you all the best with the remainder of your Symposium. This is an excellent opportunity to work together to exchange and debate ideas and solutions. I am really looking forward to hearing the consensus statement that emerges at the end of the day. Such consensus will certainly help the Government, especially if we can implement that consensus as a partnership.
I thank Massey University for its initiative and staging this Symposium and for inviting me to participate, and I thank everyone else who is here for showing such a committed interest in the future of our children’s health.